Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Using an unassuming and often humorous style, Wolff is often considered a “minimalist” writer because he eschews plot-driven stories with traditional beginnings, middles, and ends. Although he writes stories that seem to end before they reach closure or are arranged as a series of fragments, Wolff is not an experimental writer, preferring instead narratives that illuminate character and the behavior of people in believable and realistic settings. In “The Liar,” Wolff places his psychological study of his major character in a context of credible, everyday family details.

This story is grounded in realistic detail, but one of its important aspects is its psychoanalytic structure. Soon after the narrative begins, it moves away from ordinary reality and operates in a way that suggests the therapeutic experience, with its emphasis on free association and memory. James’s consciousness moves back in time and begins to operate in an associative way as he weaves together important memories involving the stark differences between his mother and his father. Through this inner journey, the reader comes to understand how James’s family has acted on him emotionally and thereby is able to experience a deeper level of empathic identification with him.

Although this story is a realistic one, its ending builds to a mode of consciousness less mundane than magical. Wolff prepares the reader for this picture of James singing in a holy language by an earlier reference to his mother’s singing the words magnum mysterium, meaning “great mystery” in Latin, an ancient language that is also associated with religious experience. The linking of the heretofore unmusical James to his mother’s spiritual song encourages the reader to see James’s lying not simply as dysfunctional but as a meaningful and mysterious linguistic activity. Although this story does not obviously culminate in the surprise ending of the traditional short story, this final, surprising turn of plot points to an inner world of fantasy and feeling that suggests dimensions to reality beyond the ordinary and the everyday.

The Liar Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Challener, Daniel D. Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff. New York: Garland, 1997.

Cornwall, John. “Wolff at the Door.” Sunday Times Magazine (London), September 12, 1993, 28-33.

DePietro, Thomas. “Minimalists, Moralists, and Manhattanites.” Hudson Review 39 (Autumn, 1986): 487-494.

Hannah, James. Tobias Wolff: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Lyons, Bonnie, and Bill Oliver. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff.” Contemporary Literature 31, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 1-16.

Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception. New York: Viking Press, 1986.